opinion: court is no place for amateurs

Appointments to a lay bench are driven by a desire for 'balance', which can have bizarre consequences

There is no role for a lay bench in the administration of justice in the magistrates' courts. Lay magistrates are not necessary in principle and are unsatisfactory in practice. Their duties should be taken over by stipendary magistrates as soon as is practically possible.

If there is a demand from the public for lay involvement in magistrates' courts, then this can be done by appointing lay people to magistrates' court committees.

Lay involvement in schools is established by appointments to the governing body, not by appointing unqualified, unpaid people to act as teachers once a week. Lay involvement in hospitals is established by appointments to the boards of NHS trusts, or as members of community health councils, not by appointing unqualified, unpaid people to act as surgeons once a week.

The stipendary magistracy is superior in practice to the lay bench in every respect (eg, training, professional conduct, method of appointment, motivation).

The "training" given to lay magistrates cannot possibly be equated with that of stipendary magistrates, who have studied for professional examinations. The "training" given to justices of the peace, both initial and refresher, is undemanding and would not enable them to pass any examination of which I am aware. Rather than rely upon constant advice from the court clerks to make up this deficiency, such clerks should themselves become stipendary magistrates.

The lay bench relies upon experience (seniority), in the absence of a professional qualification. This can cause resentment on the part of older people appointed to the bench when they have to work with senior magistrates who may be 10 years younger. Such older junior magistrates have been known to refuse to accept advice or explanation on court matters from younger seniors and to have objected to sitting with chairman younger than themselves.

The criteria for appointment as a stipendary magistrate can be simply aptitude and qualifications. Appointments to the lay bench are driven by a desire to obtain a "balance", to reflect the composition of the local community, which can have bizarre consequences.

Some lay magistrates from particular groups or organisations, have been known to feel that they have been appointed to represent their particular body, and not because of their suitability to discharge the duties of a JP. Any disquiet about the way in which they carry out their duties, or failure to obtain a position within the bench, is regarded by many of them as discrimination against their particular group.

An appointment as a stipendary magistrate can be seen as progression within a chosen profession. Many lay magistrates see their appointment as an opportunity to make useful social contacts. They are keen to use the initials "JP" after their names whenever permissible, and to attend social events for magistrates, ranging from formal dinners to sports matches. Such justices give the impression that their duties involving the administration of justice are coincidental to their appointment as lay magistrates.

The author served as a justice of the peace for almost14 years. This article is based on a submission to the Lord Chancellor's working party on magistrates.

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